Find the computer that fits your needs

November 26, 2001|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Buying a computer for the holidays? Here's my advice: Don't sweat it. Today's PCs are astounding bargains. Processing power, memory and hard disk storage have become so cheap that a manufacturer would have to go out of his way to produce a bad computer.

A yearlong industry slump and competition for market share have also driven PC prices deeper than ever. Walk into any store, pick one off the shelf, you're likely to wind up with a machine perfectly capable of the word processing, Web browsing, e-mail and financial record-keeping that most of us do with our PCs.

That said, it pays to know enough to buy a computer that meets your particular needs. Computers are a lot like automobiles that way. Any new car will carry a couple of people from hither to yon, but we use cars in different ways: Some of us haul kids between soccer fields; others haul trailers up mountains. Some of us commute five miles to work, while others virtually live in traffic.

Because cars are familiar territory with familiar jargon, it's relatively easy to figure out what kind of automobile we need, whether it's a subcompact, minivan, SUV, or muscle car. We understand the difference between a manual and automatic transmission, a four-cylinder engine versus a six, a standard AM-FM radio versus a six-disc CD changer.

Computers are much the same. They're made from components that define the specialized tasks they can perform. Like cars, they come with stickers that show what's inside. Just as you can buy a car from the dealer's lot or order one with the equipment you like, you can buy a PC from a retailer's shelf or customize one from a mail-order outfit such as Dell or Gateway.

So here's my annual, piece-by-piece guide to understanding a PC sticker or ordering a computer that fits your budget and lifestyle.


The microprocessor, also known as the CPU (short for central processing unit), is the engine that puts the "compute" in the computer. Virtually any processor can handle word processing, e-mail and Web browsing. But a faster, more powerful CPU will help if you run several programs at once and provide the oomph for power hogs such as high-end gaming or digital video editing.

CPUs are designated by manufacturer, model and speed. Most PCs run on Intel processors, the fastest of which is the Pentium 4. You'll find older Pentium III processors in many laptops, while low-end desktops and notebooks use Intel's less-expensive Celeron chip. Some manufacturers use compatible and roughly equivalent processors from AMD - the Athlon at the high end and the Duron in low-cost machines.

Within a given model, speed is measured in either millions of cycles per second (megahertz or MHz) or billions of cycles (gigahertz or GHz). Faster is usually better, but processor speed is only one factor in overall performance. Also remember that a 180-mph Ferrari offers no advantage over a four-cylinder Toyota when you're commuting five miles to work over local roads.

For basic computing, a 1-GHz Celeron is more than adequate. If you're into photo editing, digital video editing or high-end gaming, look for a higher-speed Pentium 4 or Athlon. The "sweet spot" in the market today - where you get the most horsepower for the buck - is a Pentium 4 in the 1.5- to 1.8-GHz range. You can also choose a comparable Athlon, which has a slightly lower clock speed but gets more done with each cycle.


This term refers to the chips that store programs and data while your computer is running. Also known as Random Access Memory (RAM), it comes in various forms, which you may see advertised as SDRAM, RDRAM or DDR RAM, depending on the computer's design. RAM is measured in megabytes, or millions of bytes.

The more memory you have, the faster and more reliably your computer will run. My recommendation: at least 256 megabytes. This is particularly important for new computers, which come loaded with Microsoft Windows XP, a notorious memory hog. If the model you're considering comes with less than 256 MB, have the store upgrade it to 256 megabytes before you leave.

Hard disk storage

Many new users confuse hard disk storage with memory. Your hard disk stores programs and data permanently, or at least until you decide to delete them. Its capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB), or billions of bytes. The hard drive is also used for temporary overflow when RAM gets full. So you need a drive with room for all your stuff and enough speed to shuffle it quickly.

A 20-gigabyte hard drive will satisfy most users, but if you plan to store lots of music, photos or video, get a computer with a 60-GB drive.


The video adapter, also known as a graphics adapter, produces the display on your monitor. If you're not into gaming, high-resolution photo editing or digital video production, any video adapter will do. Low-end machines are usually advertised as having "Integrated Intel 3-D Video," and that's fine.

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